Many newer wine drinkers are very hesitant to order wines in a restaurant. They may find the prices too high or the notion of ordering from an “expert” waiter, wine steward or sommelier too intimidating.
A few tips can help to alleviate most, if not all, of these concerns.
First, let’s look at mark-ups. The traditional mark-up in a restaurant is 250% of retail, or two-and-a-half times the regular cost of a bottle. This goes to cover a variety of things, personnel, storage and inventory, and general overhead, AND it adds quite a bit to the profit margin of the restaurant. I have found that this standard is more and more rare these days, and I have seen markups of less than 50% of retail in some restaurants.
Of course, you have to have an idea of the retail value of a wine to know what the markup is – and there are smartphone apps for those who want to be able to look up this information at the table. But beyond markup is the real essence of what you want – what kind of wine is on the list? You will want look over the wine list and get a sense of what they specialize in (Italian wines? California Central Coast?) and get a feel for the overall pricing. Then, decide your budget and see if there are appealing wines in your range.
In a restaurant, I usually stay in the $45 to $60 range, often relying on the waiter or sommelier if I am not aware of many of the selections. You can find very good wines at the lower price-points in restaurants, because the wines are selected for quality and to go with their menu; they don’t want you to have a disappointing experience. Feel free to give the staff your preferred price point when asking for their advice – and remember it is just advice; you can order whatever you like.
Even on a recent trip to Burgundy in a restaurant with an award-winning wine list, when I told the sommelier that I wanted something in the 40 euro range – something local and distinctive – he instantly produced a bottle of Pinot Noir that was simply wonderful.
Another option is to buy by the glass – although if you are having more than 3 or 4 glasses in your party, you are probably spending more than a bottle would cost. Of course, this is only of concern when price is a significant concern and would not apply if different members of your party are having different wines.
Dorianne and I will often have a discussion about what wine or wines to get. She steers away from red meat and I steer toward it, so she is often having a white and I am having a red – so we go by the glass or half bottle if that is an option. We have also been known to agree on a single menu item to share a bottle of the same wine together.
Yet another option is to bring your own bottle and pay corkage. A corkage fee is established by the restaurant and covers the cost of providing wine glasses, opening your bottle, and serving the wine. It will usually include an ice bucket for white or rosé wines. Corkage varies by the restaurant, but usually is higher in more expensive places, as you might imagine. About $15 is normal for each bottle.
So, bottom line – there is no need to fear asking for help from the staff, be that the waiter or a wine steward. While in rare cases, they might be trying to move certain bottles, normally, you will get a good recommendation. If you are a regular, you will likely get some special treatment, perhaps a bottle not on the list or something that the staff is particularly enjoying at the moment. So have fun and enjoy wine with your restaurant meal!